Celtics, Lakers eye NBA title

Published 12:53 am Thursday, June 3, 2010

LOS ANGELES — When Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers and Paul Pierce landed with the Celtics in the late 1990s, they both learned most of what they needed to know about their franchises’ histories and expectations simply by looking at the forests of fabric high above the court.

These teams only hang banners for championships, and they’re usually in big groups.

Multiple titles are the only metric of success, the only validation still interesting to Bryant and Pierce. Bryant is trying to accomplish the rarest of NBA feats for the second time in his career, while Pierce’s Celtics get their first chance when the NBA finals begin Thursday night at Staples Center.

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“It’s going to mean everything for my career, because a lot of guys have won one, and not many have won a couple,” Pierce said Wednesday before Boston practiced at Staples Center.

Pro basketball’s most successful franchises are together in the NBA finals for the second time in three years and the 12th time overall. These teams will have won 33 of the league’s 64 titles when they finish a potentially fascinating series with plenty of modern subplots.

“We’re always focused on winning a championship,” Bryant said. “And when you do it, you want to do it again and again.”

Bryant is enjoying a dynamic postseason despite hobbling through injuries during a third straight finals run by his remarkably steady Lakers, who are 8-0 at home in the playoffs and haven’t even trailed in a series.

Boston’s swift rise from a 50-win regular season as a No. 4 seed has been even more surprising, with Rajon Rondo making a quantum leap into stardom during what might be the last stand for Boston’s Big Three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

But on the biggest scoreboard of all, the one these players claim they seldom check, it’s Celtics 17, Lakers 15. Don’t expect fans in either basketball-crazy city to forget that score when their team takes it all again.

And just in case the Staples Center fans didn’t have enough reason to go crazy in Game 1, Pierce threw out the first volley against his own hometown.

“Our fans are, I want to say, a little bit more knowledgeable to the game,” said Pierce, a Lakers fan growing up in Inglewood. “I think a lot of celebrities come here to get out of the house (rather) than to watch a game — to see the other celebrities. It’s an interesting crowd, whereas I think our fans really come to watch the actual game.”

L.A. should be fully focused on this historic matchup, however. Most players on both teams already have jewelry after Boston beat Los Angeles in six games in 2008, and the Lakers routed Orlando last season. But just one ring isn’t enough now — not for the veterans who appreciate the rare opportunity to go for two.

“If you look at the great players in Celtic history, the great teams, they’ve all won a couple of championships at least,” said Pierce, who dumped his baseball dreams for basketball mostly because of this rivalry’s irresistible pull in the 1980s. “I want to be mentioned up there with the great Celtics of all time, cement my name in history with the group by winning more than one championship. … To win another one, and to come close to it, is pretty impressive.”

Celtics coach Doc Rivers subtly emphasized this point all season at Boston’s training complex with a blank banner hanging above their practice court, right next to the 2008 banner. Rivers claimed it was put there by the late Red Auerbach, whose coaching record for NBA titles was broken by Lakers coach Phil Jackson last year.

Jackson wasn’t quite so explicit in his gym, although the banner for a 16th title would fit neatly in a spot on the east wall.

“It’s very rare that you have this occasion when a team has won a championship, another team (went) off and won a championship, and now you have the renewal of the rivalry,” Jackson said. “It’s a special thing. I mentioned that to the players, that it’s a special thing for us — not so much about the (Bill) Russell era, or the (Dave) Cowens era, or the (Larry) Bird and Magic era.”

Only nine NBA teams have won more than one title, and just five franchises besides the Lakers and Celtics repeated as champions within the same half-decade, further winnowing the ranks in which this season’s champions will find themselves after the series.

Allen got a perspective on the achievement from no less an authority than Michael Jordan during a conversation last week.

“He told me, ’The first one you win, you’re lucky,”’ Allen said with a grin. “I didn’t win six, so I don’t know what it feels like to be able to do it that many times. … It adds to your (legacy) to be able to be here and say that you won multiple times. It’s not just some fluke where you gave it all for one moment. To be able to get back to it multiple times, it definitely shows your commitment.”

Bryant chooses to deal with history’s ghosts and the future’s possibilities by utterly ignoring them, at least in public. Yet with the bulk of his 30s still in front of him, there’s little doubt Bryant grasps what a fifth title would mean — the same number won by Magic Johnson, and just one fewer than Jordan, to whom Bryant was recently equated by NBA commissioner David Stern.

“I only think about this one matchup,” Bryant said. “The happy times of Magic winning against Boston, or the sad times of Jerry West losing to them, has no impact on me whatsoever. I have a series to play. I have a series to win. I’ll just focus on that.”

Bryant is in his seventh NBA finals, winning his first three and then losing twice. He was the 2008 regular-season MVP, yet Pierce outplayed him in that meeting, winning the finals MVP award.

Bryant responded by propelling the Lakers to last season’s title, and his current playoff run has been even more impressive — 29.4 points, 6.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game despite having his knee drained during the first round.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is one of the great playoff performances,” Jackson said. “This year particularly stands out simply due to a lot of speculation at the end of the season, and how he’s really recovered and led this basketball team during this playoff. This is an outstanding performance up to this point.”